Friday, August 18, 2017

The city of mixed enchantments


The closer the train drew to the city, the more jittery I became. The sun was about to set beyond the low-lying plains across the Yangon River by the time the helmsmen had slowed the train down with a long blast of the horn. I was slightly swaying along with the train. I was excited to see faces and scenes I had not seen for some time. The thought only made my heart beat faster.

I had been assigned to work in my organisation’s Pyinmana branch for three months, the first time I had ever been away from Yangon for that long. While in Pyinmana, thoughts of my hometown rarely popped into my mind.

I had never thought of Yangon as a great place to live, even though it had been my home since birth. But on that evening, as I got closer to the city, I couldn’t help stretching my head through the window and excitedly looking forward to taking in the cityscape – the main railroad station with its floral-motif towers, and Traders Hotel and Sakura Tower rising up against the orange sky and overlooking the flat, sprawling city.

As the saying goes, travellers think more about the closer point: the origin soon after they have set off on their journey and the destination when they are almost there. As the train had pulled away from Pyinmana hours before, I mostly thought about the days I had spent there. That once-sleepy, logging resort village known for its production of bamboo shoots had suddenly been transformed into a boomtown.

Pyinmana, an area that the British had left unoccupied over fears of malaria and insurgency during their march to Mandalay in 1885, was now a bustling district closely connected with Nay Pyi Taw, the latter boasting extensive areas for new residential and ministerial buildings, 10-lane boulevards, a replica of Shwedagon Pagoda, a zoo, a safari park, and official buildings with marble-floored corridors and splendid chambers where lawmakers gather and the government runs office.

After leaving Pyinmana the train passed through green paddy fields. To the east was the hazy Shan plateau. As we drew closer to Yangon, my thoughts shifted away from Pyinmana.

Yangon has never been a royal city in any of the kingdoms raised on the soil of Myanmar. Contrary to the legend that an ancient royal city named Okkalapa existed on the site more than 2500 years ago, in reality, around 500CE it was only a tiny fishing village inhabited by Mon people covering a small area around Shwedagon Pagoda

Yangon quickly developed as the capital after the British annexed lower Myanmar following the second Anglo-Myanmar war (1852-1853). It was once considered one of the region’s most developed, cleanest and attractive cities before its decline in the late 20th century. Despite having lost its status as the administrative capital, Yangon is still the country’s most populous city, as well as it most dynamic economic hub and vibrant metropolis.

My thoughts focused on the real, down-to-earth life of Yangon. Images welled up before my eyes: the densely populated downtown jam-packed with old, colonial, post-colonial and modern architecture, ranging from apartment buildings to government offices; its bumpy and potholed roads lined with dilapidated sidewalks overflowing with pedestrians and vendors; buses overcrowded with commuters and ill-mannered conductors.

The images gave me a suffocating feeling. I had not even seen them yet, but imagination alone was enough to make me skip that chapter.

Other facades of Yangon saved my thoughts from drowning. The first that gave me oxygen was what Rudyard Kipling, when he visited in 1889, described as “a beautiful winking wonder that blazed in the sun”, and what Ralph Fitch, the first Englishman to visit Myanmar (1586), supposed “the fairest place … in all the world”.

What Kipling called a “golden mystery” was for me a symbol of physical and psychological freedom. Like many other children in Yangon – who have less room to play than those in countryside – Shwedagon Pagoda is a place where they can run about freely. As a child, I would always play with my friends whenever we visited the golden stupa. When we got tired, we would lie on our backs and look up at the glittering spire or the twinkling stars in the cloudless sky.

Unlike my childhood visits, now I’m more likely to sit quietly in a corner and listen to my inner thoughts or enjoy listening to the tinkling of the small bells on the stupa’s hti (umbrella). I feel refreshed, reborn and ready to face life after each visit.
The vessel of my mind shifted course from Shwedagon and toward another place of freedom. With blue water, the orange sky above, stalls selling buthikyaw (crispy fried gourd fritters) and couples strolling along the walkway, this is very romantic place often seen in movies, romanticised in novels and expounded upon in songs and poems. This is Inya Lake, a haven from the noise and bustle of city life. Stare at its calm water; it can pacify your restless mind.

Finished with symbols of freedom, my mind wandered to Pansodan Street, an oasis in the middle of noisy downtown where booksellers await avid readers. This is where you can buy rare, old books from roadside vendors, should you know how to bargain for the right price. I have spent hours here browsing books. This is where I met Leo Tolstoy’s Natasha, chatted with Scarlett in the pages of Margaret Mitchell, and befriended Thein Pe Myint’s Ko Tin Tun and Ma Mya Hmi.
From Pansodan Street, I turned onto Anawrahta Road, where the pedestrian walkways were crammed with roadside vendors selling an extensive variety of foods of Myanmar, Indian, Chinese, Thai and Shan origin. I imagined I was eating one delicacy after another: skewered pork tubes, boiled red meat, mohinga, pickled samosa, noodles, biryani and pickled tealeaves.

By chance, I encountered a familiar face on the pavement. We engaged in a long chat at a roadside teashop. In typical Myanmar style, we extended our conversation until we finished two or three pots of green tea.

I sailed toward Chinatown, where I could enjoy a different atmosphere. I wandered the streets, including popular 19th Street. After that I didn’t want to miss the scenes along the Yangon River, because I really enjoy seeing the motorboats shuttle Yangon’s labourers back to their homes across the river. The water was muddy and the jetties were busy.

It was getting dark. I walked to Sule Pagoda and got on a bus. I handed the stern-faced conductor a big kyat note, and he shot me a belligerent look and told to wait until he had a small note for change. Pushing me farther inside, he warned everybody not to block the exit and the aisle.

The bus got more and more crowded and drops of sweat began falling from my face and body. I was squeezed in the crowd and felt suffocated. I prayed for my bus trip to end as soon as possible.

Finally, my destination! I forced my way through the crowd to alight but couldn’t walk home right away without resting first at the bus stop.

At this point I ended my imaginary wanderings. But I continued thinking that Yangon was full of things to enjoy, and other things that could make one feel down; that it was attractive in some ways and nasty in others; that it could be a ladder for the ambitious but a hornet’s nest for the susceptible; that the people looked full of care but were always in a rush; that it was place where it was hard to break the ice.

I had always wished I could disentangle myself from the unfriendly, stressful and bustling environments of Yangon. Whenever I could free myself temporarily from the city, I had always forgotten about it. But this time, after staying away for so long, I was surprisingly excited to return.

With a last blast of the horn, the train pulled into the station. I looked around as if I had never been to Yangon before. But in my mind, I knew that, as a person who loves to get close to the nature, I would be fed up with it again, after some time, and would be longing to run away again.